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Learning Styles

By Suzanne C. Miller 

"The process of learning requires not only hearing and applying, but also forgetting and then remembering again"- John Gray

Research suggests that faculty who are sensitive to their students learning styles reach students more quickly and more easily than those who force all students to adapt to the traditional read/lecture only approach (keep in mind our discussion of memory).  Use of learning styles is key to enhanced memory.  It is also important to keep in mind that each student's memory retrieval strategies are linked to the way their brain functions (brain-based learning).  This is not to say that we should not encourage students to explore all learning styles and enhance all of their learning skills.  Instead it suggests that student will learn more quickly and with less emotional resistance if we consider the learning style that is most natural for them.  Community College students, more than perhaps any other group of learners frequently suffer from low self-esteem.  The more we can enhance learner success, the more likely we are to retain students and to inspire them to continue their education.  

Researchers at Diablo Valley College in northern California have grouped learners into four categories.  Their research indicates that faculty can most easily reach students using the methods outlined below:

girl readingThe Visual/ Verbal Learner learns best when information is presented visually and in a written language format. This type of learner can excel online or in courses which emphasize reading.    If you are a visual/verbal learner you probably prefer the opportunity to read and reflect at your leisure rather than having a face-to-face workshop covering the same materials. 

It is wise to encourage this type of learner to read course materials and mark them up with a highlighter.  Encourage them to write out responses to each learning objective found in the introduction to each lesson.  This will help them remember vital information.

If your class involves demonstrations such as lab experiments or assembly of equipment, keep in mind that this type of learner may want to "read the instructions" prior to participation.

Words from the Visual/Verbal Learner:  "When I study, I need a perfectly quiet room. All I want to do is spread out my books and notes and note cards on a big table and methodically go through my study materials until I have the subject matter down. I donít want any background music on. I canít stand studying with a partner. I donít want to talk about what Iím learning; I just want to read and write about it. Iím a Visual/Verbal learner. It seems that I learn best when my brain is inundated with written words. When studying, I like using gel pens and highlighters in six or seven different colors to write information on flashcards. Often, during an exam, I can remember the color of the information Iím trying to recall, and then the color memory triggers the memory of the answer Iím looking for."

TelevisionThe Visual/ Nonverbal Learner learns best when information is presented visually and in a picture or design format. In a classroom setting, they benefit from instructors who use visual aids such as film, video, maps and charts.  Online they need images and color cues to help them remember information and to retain their full attention.  Repetitive use of the same icons can be very helpful.  

The more visual aids provided, the more likely visual/nonverbal learners are to enjoy your course and succeed. This is especially true when writing instructions.  Visual/nonverbal learners often become impatient with long instructions not enhanced by visual cues.   As much as possible, translate words and ideas into symbols, pictures, and diagrams. You may wish to experiment with Photoshop or Flash.  Both programs can help you develop better graphics and moving images for the web or PowerPoint.  

An important note:  visual/nonverbal learners have often been criticized by "serious" academics because they like pictures and find that they learn more from video presentations than from lectures.  In the current economy, visual/nonverbal learners are poised to succeed in multimedia television and internet ventures, where their natural appreciation of the power of visual imagery is important. 

ringing alarm clockIt must also be acknowledged that serving the needs of the visual/nonverbal learner takes substantially more time.  One cannot simply type out the course materials or give a lecture.  Image creation, video editing, and even use of icons take time and planning.         


Words from the Visual/Nonverbal Learner: "I have this kitchen utensil drawer at home, and itís packed full of utensils of one kind or the other. Iíve never been able to figure out why my husband can never find what heís looking for when he opens the drawer. He just rummages around in the drawer and looks distressed because he canít get his hands on the spatula heís looking for. Then I walk over, take one look at the drawer, and pick out the spatula quickly and easily. I realized, after taking the Learning Style Survey, that our different experiences have to do with our differing learning styles. Iím a Visual/Nonverbal Learner. I can scan a dense visual field (like my kitchen drawer) and quickly pick out an essential visual design (like the outline of the spatula). My husband, on the other hand, is a Tactile/Kinesthetic Learner. Heís not going to find that spatula until he gets his hands on it-- which is no small feat in a drawer as crammed full of things as our utensil drawer."

people listening to lectureThe Auditory/ Verbal Learner learns best when information is presented in an oral language format. In a classroom setting they  benefit from listening to lectures and participating in group discussions. They also benefit from obtaining information from audio tape. When trying to remember something, they can often "hear" the way someone told you the information or the way it was repeated out loud. They learn best when interacting with others in a listening/speaking exchange.

Words from the Auditory Learner: "When Iím taking a test, I can hear in my head the way my girlfriend and I discussed the subject matter when we were studying together. I can hear my girlfriendís tone of voice; I remember at what point we were laughing. Often it is the auditory memories that I remember firstóthe tone of voice, the laughing. Then I remember the content of what we were saying, and this gives me the answer Iím looking for on my exam. Itís amazing to me how strong an Auditory Learner I am. I remember loving to listen to my grandfather tell stories when I was little. My brother couldnít sit still long enough and would always run off before the story was over. But me, I could just listen forever."

riding bike while watching TVThe Tactile/ Kinesthetic Learner learns best when physically engaged in a "hands on" activity. In the classroom they benefit from a lab setting where they can manipulate materials to learn new information. Since they learn best when physically active, sitting in a lecture course can be very challenging.   

Encourage these students to stay actively engaged in the material.  You might recommend a field trip to an historical site, museum, concert orcartoon of chemistry experiment other place where they can "experience" what they are learning.  Even a one day observation of a person who works in that field may help them get a "feel" for how the information in your course is relevant to them. 

Words from the Tactile/Kinesthetic Learner:  "When I was little, I could never sit for long periods of time in school, the way the other kids seemed to be able to. I just needed to move my body. I could never understand why we just sat at our desks, looked at the teacher and listened. I wondered why we never seemed to DO anything. I figured I was just a troublemaker, a bad student, and lazy. But now I see it in terms of learning style. I am a Tactile/Kinesthetic learner. I really need to be actively and physically involved when Iím learning, or nothing sinks in. This is a real challenge in college, especially in traditional lecture classes. But I take notes, and I also draw pictures all over my notebook pagesóanything to keep my hands busy during lecture. Somehow this helps me stay focused on what the instructor is saying."

Typically we save all activities for the Apply section, but we believe that it is important that you understand how the learning styles survey works before we discuss its application. 
You can take the survey online at: http://silcon.com/~scmiller/lsweb/dvclearn.htm.  Be sure to print out your results when you finish so that you can refer back and reflect upon them later.

The diagnostic is based on Suzanne Miller's research into learning styles and was written by the college's learning disability specialist Catherine Jester. It comprises 32 multiple-choice questions designed to ascertain a student's natural learning style, and it has been freely available on the Web since January 1998.  

The Evidence:  By spring 2001, over 40,000 people from DVC and other colleges and corporations had taken the Diablo Valley survey.  This project, which was was awarded the California Community College Foundation TechED's 1st Place Award for "Best Use of Technology in Education for 1999," has served to make faculty more aware of the importance of understanding diverse learning styles and designing course work to reach the broadest possible spectrum of styles. It helps students by identifying their strengths, encouraging them to become active managers of their educational resources, and to take responsibility for their learning.  Careful analysis of the results, omitting any questionable reports, reveals that a knowledge of their preferred learning style is helpful to students.  " I'm not stupid, I'm auditory" was how one student reacted after taking the learning-styles diagnostic test. "I realize there's nothing 'wrong' with me; I just process information differently," was another student's comment.

Analysis of the data generated by the test indicates that there may be a good reason why so many people find various forms of learning difficult. Among males aged between 18 and 25,  just 17% are best suited to learning through reading text. The figure for women in the same age group is a bit higher: just under 35% learn most easily from textually presented information.

These figures contrast with those for students aged 35 or over -- a substantial population in today's community college community. In this age group, 27% of males and over 42% of females find it natural to learn from reading.  But that's still less than half the student population. Research thus far does not indicate whether the difference between the two age groups is a direct consequence of growing older or is a reflection of changes in the environment in which today's "under 25" grew up. 

By far the most powerful method of learning among all age groups is visual nonverbal: diagrams, tables, illustrations, pictures, and video. Among the 18-25 age group, 48.1% of males and 36.2% of females favor this method of learning. The figures for the over-35s are almost identical: 46.0% and 38.8%. Half a century after the dawn of the television age, these results are perhaps not surprising. But the vast majority of courses are still structured around the traditional college textbook and lecture, a method that clearly challenges students to learn the material and how to learn at the same time.

At a time when many people are taking college courses on the Internet, it is worth noting of another of the findings: a surprisingly high proportion of people learn best from listening. In the 18-25 age group, 38.0% of males and 31.3% of females are predominantly auditory learners; among the "over 35," 35.2% of males and 25.7% of females.  To reach those individuals,  instruction by voice as well as text, illustrations, and video is important.

The fourth group of learners the study has identified are those who learn best in a tactile or kinesthetic fashion.  Among the younger age group, 20.2% of men and 20.7% of women learn best in this fashion; among the older students, the figures are 14.1% and 13.1%, respectively. Don't expect these individuals to succeed without tremendous effort unless they are free to stand up and move around.

Creating even more of a challenge for teachers, between 20 and 24% of students do not fall cleanly into one particular category, but exhibit a hybrid learning style that spans two or more of the four categories.  Of course, it may be that these students are at an advantaged by their multiple learning styles, but the evidence to support this conclusion is not clear at this time.

 Verified Statistics based upon:  Males: 6,756 Females:10,868 Visual/Verbal (readers) Visual/Nonverbal (images) Auditory Tactile/Kinesthetic Balanced
Males 18 - 25 17% 48.1% 38% 20.2%  
Women 18 - 25 35% 36.2% 31.3% 20.7%  
Males over 35 27% 46% 35.2%    
Females over 35 42% 38.8% 25.7%    
Total all males 21.7% 48.7% 35.1% 17.3% 22.8%
Total all Females 38.2% 38.2% 28.4% 17.3% 22.5%


Researchers Soloman/Felder offer a slightly different breakdown with essentially the same lessons for faculty.  They divide faculty into those who focus upon:

  • Input: Visual, Auditory, Tactile/Kinesthetic
  • Perception: Sensing, Intuitive
  • Processing: Active, Reflective
  • Understanding: Sequential, Global

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